A Dangerous Business

Here’s the text of an article I wrote on the ‘Dangerous Business’ of theological education, published in the latest Irish Bible Institute newsletter. One of the most encouraging things for me in re-reading this is how it ties in with what students actually said themselves about the transforming power of theological education. In other words, the three themes talked about below are actually happening; it isn’t just theory or nice ideas or empty words.

Feel welcome to contribute to a discussion on these. If you have studied at a theological college, what sort of experience did you have? Are you put off going to a Bible College for some reason (other than time and money)? How well can the sort of things described below happen outside a college setting in a local church? Would you list different priorities of what theological training is all about?


January 2015 marked 20 years that I’ve been involved in theological education. So this is a good time to reflect! What difference does Bible College actually make in the lives of students? Let me share three themes that I hope and work and pray to see develop in the lives of students who come to IBI.

  1. Learn more about God’s redemptive story and your place within it

The ultimate source of Christian theology is the Bible. Therefore the Bible is (or should be) central to all Christian ministry and all theological education. So far, so obvious – I teach at a Bible Institute after all. But what do we mean when we say the Bible is central to Christian training?

When I started out teaching, I assumed that the ‘right’ way to introduce students to the highpoints of Christian theology was in systematic categories. Isn’t that what most evangelical statements of faith do? – a series of bullet point summaries of what is believed about God, Scripture, Man, Jesus, Spirit, the future and so on. But after trying this for a while I (and I think the students) felt increasingly something was missing.

Now of course this might just have been the teaching (!) but it felt too much like a series of disconnected topics. It also felt too much like the purpose of the exercise was primarily to ‘know’ the ‘right’ information and so the content became too much about ‘us’ – defining ‘our’ theology. The biggest problem was that there did not seem to be much connection to mission and discipleship – the heart of the Christian life.

I’d better throw in two clarifications here. I believe in the importance of right doctrine and the supreme authority of Scripture. But over time I’ve come to love and appreciate the Bible more and more as one great all-embracing narrative with Jesus Christ at the centre of the story. And the purpose of that story is not given to us just as interesting information, but for personal and corporate transformation.

The Bible tells the (true) story of universal history. Its opening chapter begins with creation and its closing chapter ends with new creation. In between, we are given the story of Israel which, after many twists and turns, culminates in the promised saviour. Jesus is the ‘shocking’ Messiah no-one expects: a crucified man who is also creator, judge and resurrected Lord of both Jews and Gentiles, before whom every knee will bow (Phil 2:10).

Too often we reduce this story down to Jesus as my personal saviour. While this is true for every believer, on its own it individualises the gospel and narrows the Bible story to be ‘all about me’. This is why I have re-shaped my teaching to a more narrative shape. This changes how we ‘do’ theology profoundly. It is the Bible asking questions of us. It puts us and our narrow concerns off centre and in their proper place within the flow of God’s work in the world, and taking our (small) place within the story of God’s people (more of that in a moment).

The more you read the Bible this way, the more all the great doctrines of the Christian faith – such as justification by faith, sin and salvation, the gospel of Jesus Christ, the ministry of the Holy Spirit, the mission of the church, the future hope – make sense. I want students to ‘get’ the biblical storyline, and how the myriad of sub-plots fit within the redemptive mission of the triune God. This draws them in afresh to that story and their place of serving the Lord within the story of their own lives. And that’s one of the most satisfying and exciting things to see happen in someone’s life.

  1. See your whole life as a calling to participate in God’s mission within God’s people

But there is more to biblical theology than even this. It’s also exciting to see students ‘get’ how intimately the gospel is connected to God’s choice of a people to bear his name. In other words, understanding the Bible as a narrative connects individual faith with the mission of the church.

This goes against the grain of our individualised, consumerist, Western culture where, even for Christians, church becomes an ‘optional extra’ to ‘my’ faith. But the Bible will have none of this. The identity and mission of each individual Christian is to be worked out within the role given to the church within the mission of God. It is an incredible privilege and high calling to be invited by God’s grace to join in with others in his redemptive work in the world! How many job offers like that do you get in a lifetime?

This leads to how good theological training is taught and lived out with others in a local church community. A goal of going to Bible College is therefore far more than mere academic progress; it should help to equip and train students to preach, teach, do pastoral care, evangelism, lead, listen, and model a life of service to Jesus alongside other brothers and sisters within the family of God, wherever exactly God has placed them (Eph. 4:11-13).

  1. Being transformed by the Spirit to love God, love others

A third theme is how God’s primary agenda for students, and for every Christian, is personal transformation into the likeness (image) of his Son (Rom. 8:29; 2 Cor.3:18). As Jesus both taught and demonstrated, love is both the motive and the practical form of a truly Christian life. Love is the primary result of the Spirit’s transforming presence. It is love alone which is eternal (1 Cor. 13:13) and without love all Christian ministry is a waste of time (1 Cor. 13:1-3). Love is most supremely demonstrated at the cross of Christ and gives shape to all Christian ministry (1 Cor. 9): it is not about the self – our own agendas and ambitions and achievements, but about loving and serving others for whom Christ died (1 Cor. 8:11). And for many Christians globally, sacrificial love leads to suffering.

So it has become clearer and clearer to me over the last 20 years that love is the first and most essential ‘mark’ of authentic Christian ministry. It is why ‘character’ or ‘Christian maturity’ is in Scripture the primary ‘qualification’ for any ministry. This is why the relational track record of someone in life and ministry is of primary importance, not just a footnote at the bottom of their CV. Therefore any form of theological education that does not place a high importance on Christian character is failing to do its job.


Understanding the Bible; knowing your true identity and calling; joining with others in serving the risen Lord; participating in God’s mission to redeem this broken world whatever the cost; being transformed, head, heart and hands, to love God and love others – this is what going to Bible College is all about. It’s a dangerous business – might God be daring you to give it a try?

Patrick Mitchel

An Irish Presbyterian night out: sandwiches, tray-bakes, harps, mythical objectivism, spiritual transformation and the grace of God

On Sunday evening a group from our wee church, joined with a three other Presbyterian churches in the wider area for a bit of a shin-dig in Drogheda.

A very convivial evening it was, with a generous surplus of sandwiches and tray-bakes, plenty of chat, worship led by a dynamic team of MCC musicians (including a harp and Be Thou My Vision in Irish); the service led by Rev John Woodside of Drogheda interspersed with people telling their own story of faith (i. e. testimony).

Listening to the stories was fascinating. Maybe I’m wrong but it seems as if someone telling their ‘testimony’ of what God has done in their life does not seem to happen very often any more? I wonder why?

Two things stood out to me:

First, how beautifully a woman spoke of the church.  This was a story of a specific experience of a particular community. The image used was from Luke 13:34

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.”

Dominus Flevit
Mosaic from Dominus Flevit, a Franciscan church at the foot of the Mount of Olives

She used this as illustration of how she had been ‘gathered in’, almost against her will: gently, without coercion or pressure or force, but with love, kindness, pastoral care and friendship. Her experience of church was of soft feathered wings protectively enfolding her and bringing her into a safe place.

Now, ‘the church’ in general gets pretty bad press in Ireland. But this was a reminder what authentic Christianity in action looks like. Love. Nothing as powerful nor as moving.

Second, the stories illustrated something that was mentioned on this blog a while back when discussing conversion and finding / losing faith. Namely, the fallacy of ‘mythical objectivism’  (the myth that objective truth is knowable, neat, tidy and can be acquired in a neutrally detached way by the knower).

Rather, spiritual transformation tends to be personal, subjective, storied, and nearly always deeply relational.

For some people it was a line in a hymn that suddenly became real, for another a Leonard Cohen song, or a post on Facebook by a virtual stranger, or a chance visit to a church that sparked off a journey towards faith in God. No one story was remotely the same.

One thing they did have in common was that they did not focus on unpacking rational arguments for the existence of God, the reliability of the Bible, or how the atonement works. Nor did they tend to focus on sermons heard or teaching received.

Now, this is not to fall into some Kantian dualism where ‘faith’ belongs to the realm of the subjective. It was clear that the faith shared by the speakers had become / was increasingly becoming ‘faith seeking understanding’. In other words, faith based on historical fact, coherent biblical doctrine, gospel truth and so on. Each was on a journey of faith seeking increasing understanding; some just starting out and others a good bit along the road.

But (for me anyway) they highlighted how most of us humans are no mere ‘rational minds’ working out ‘truth’ in a detached, logical manner before making a carefully, calculated decision to follow Jesus. Rather we are a whole mix of emotions, experiences, relationships, questions, thoughts and beliefs – and somewhere in that pot-pourri God graciously breaks in surprising and unexpected ways.

I say graciously, because the other thing the stories had in common was the joy and conviction that this new life was a good one: not without struggle or doubt or questions, but full of thanksgiving and joy and hope.

All in all, a grand night altogether.

What is the ultimate purpose of being a Christian?

What is the ultimate purpose of being a Christian?

What things come to mind?

As the Westminster Shorter Catechism puts it, “To glorify God and to enjoy him for ever”?

To win others for Christ?

To live a life of love?

To live a holy life?

To serve the Lord, using whatever gifts you have been given in service of others?

To work hard at transforming this broken world?

Paul, I think, would affirm most of the above. But I also think that he would subsume them under his primary concern for the believers under his pastoral care – that ‘Christ is formed’ in his ‘dear children’ (Gal.4:19).

In this sense, the goal of the Christian life is spiritual transformation – to be conformed to the image of the Son (Rom.8:29; 2 Cor.3:18).

And this transformation happens in the context of relationship with God and others – in the power of the Spirit. It is the Spirit whom God sends into believers’ hearts and who enables them to call God abba (Gal.4:7).

On this theme, I came across this quote by Bruce Marshall (in a MA diss being written by one of our students at IBI – tks M)

This conforming of human beings to the crucified and risen Christ is a unitary action of the whole Trinity, and indeed seems to realize the most interior and primal purposes of the triune God. The Father has eternally and effectively willed – predestined – our conformity to his Son (cf. Rom. 8:29; Eph. 1:5), who, by accepting incarnation and the death from which the Father raises him, constitutes that original form of which we are the intended images. The Spirit is the agent who, poured out from the Father by the risen Son and dwelling in us, immediately joins us to Christ and makes us his icons (see Rom. 8:9-11, 14). The New Testament of course talks about the outcome of Jesus’ resurrection in many other ways, but the notion of “bearing the image of the man of heaven” seems to express both the final aim and the original intention not only of the resurrection, but of the totality of divine acts involving creatures. While for now we are icons of the risen Christ in fragmentary and partial ways, in the end the Spirit will enable us to see him as he is, and so be as much like God as it is possible for creatures to be (see Jn. 3:2). With the perfection of this work of the Spirit will coincide the liberation of all creation; no further divine aim for creation will remain to be realized (see Rom. 8:22-3).  B. Marshall, 2000. Trinity and Truth. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press.

Wonderful – the astonishing agenda of the triune God is personal and cosmic redemption.

And radical – Marshall says God’s goal is that believers are “as much like God as it is possible for creatures to be.” Possibly  – though I’d put it differently. I think the goal is better put that they will be as fully human as it is possible to be.

Humanity without death, sin, selfishness, violence and hate.

Humanity with love, wholeness, relationship, service, joy, self-giving and creativity.

Humanity, in other words, as embodied by the living man Jesus Christ.

Humanity which has been remade in the image of God as it is conformed to the image of the Son.

Comments, as ever, welcome.





How does spiritual change happen?

One of the bigger questions for any form of Christian ministry (preaching, teaching, youth ministry, children’s ministry, bible studies, church life in general, theological education etc) is this:

How does spiritual change happen?

My feeling (hey this is a blog post, not an academically researched article I can have feelings) is that there are all sorts of assumptions floating around this question and they are frequently found wanting. I wonder if you agree.

[And in case I get labelled as saying truth or doctrine does not matter, please note that is not what I’m saying. I happen to believe truth matters a lot – I love teaching theology after all. I am questioning how we ‘learn’ truth for spiritual transformation.]

Assumptions like:

“If people affirm Christian beliefs, that affirmation will result in a transformed life.”

In this case the person is happy to say, ‘Yes, I believe that’ when the Nicene Creed (or similar) is read. They may have no great intellectual objections to Christian faith and the existence of God, the incarnation, cross, resurrection and so on. They may happily attend church events and services for years. But apparent ‘mental assent’ to doctrines on its own is another lousy indicator of spiritual maturity, or even of spiritual life.

“If we can show the coherence, truthfulness, and reliability of the Christian Scriptures and Christian theology, people will see the truth and make the logical next step of faith and trust in God.”

Maybe and hopefully so, but this assumption dare I say is the favourite one of teachers, PhD students and the like. Simply explaining and ‘naming truth’ in a lecture, sermon or thesis does not on its own automatically guarantee spiritual transformation.

A close cousin of that last assumption is “If we teach it well, people will ‘get it’.

How many preachers & teachers would love this to be the case! For this model elevates their importance: in a hierarchy of learning they are at the top of the pyramid. Maybe long ago this was the case when ‘the minister’ (note the singular there – as if there was only one who ministered!) was one of the most educated and learned people in a community, but that ain’t true any more.

[And I wonder if the multidimensional ways that people actually learn in a globally interconnected world has de-centered the role of preachers and pastors to such a radical degree that many are profoundly disoriented – but that’s a post for another day.]

But if we pause to think about what spiritual transformation actually involves we would be much slower to jump to the assumption that ‘if we teach it well, they will get it’.

All of these assumptions, I suggest, are based on an epistemology that spiritual transformation comes via acquiring or assenting to knowledge. Knowledge is something that can be mastered and acquired. It is mediated by the expert (the pastor, the PhD student, the lecturer). It is passed downwards from expert to ‘lay’ person who receives it.

This has been called ‘mythical objectivism’ – the myth that objective truth is knowable, neat, tidy and can be acquired in a neutrally detached way by the knower.

There are at least three problems with this sort of assumption.

1. It doesn’t work  very well.

Studies have shown this sort of objective rationally detached learning to be a myth. The big problem is an overly simplistic assumption about HOW learning is ‘translated’ from the mind of the listener to their day to day lives. ‘Magically’, the learner, having acquired ‘knowledge’, then somehow assimilates that knowledge into her thoughts, feelings, actions, daily routines, decisions, and life with God.

But learning doesn’t happen this way. At the very least, for a message to be learned deeply and integrated into everyday life, it has to be worked out something like this:

Listen to the message ___ Understand it ___ Believe it ___ Remember it ___ Commit to it  ___ Act on it daily

Mythical objectivism begins with the listening and hopes the rest will somehow follow.

2. It distorts how we teach and expect learning to happen

The onus, in this model, is all on the teacher to teach well and the rest will follow. I’m all for excellent teaching, but this model is horribly hierarchical and narrow.

3. It is individualistic or non-relational

This is the point I really want to talk about. Even that learning process listed above still fails to integrate that learning works in relationship with others. Learning is a multi-way process between people. Christian learning is learning in relationship with other Christians within a community of faith. But even more than this – Christian learning flows out of relationship with the living God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Here  are some big sweeping assertions (BSAs) – remember it’s a blog post after all.

BSA 1: Much of western theology has been shaped by mythical objectivism. It has been far more concerned with defining right doctrine than focusing on how that doctrine acts to transform lives.

BSA 2: The (unbiblical) disjuncture between faith and works / justification and sanctification in much Protestant theology is an example. Soteriology has tended to trump the Christian life in a way that is out of line with the Bible’s more integrated understanding.

BSA 3: The (unbiblical) marginalisation of the Holy Spirit in much Protestant theology is another example

Some of these thoughts come from reading a fascinating book of a PhD thesis by Volker Rabens called The Holy Spirit and Ethics in Paul

Much Protestant theology has had a static and passive view of spiritual transformation. The Spirit is given to or infused in the believer at conversion. And after that, there is fuzziness on how exactly spiritual transformation takes place.

In contrast, Rabens (who did his doctorate under Prof Max Turner in London School of Theology) argues that spiritual transformation in Paul is much more dynamic and relational.

Transformation happens

“primarily through a deeper knowledge of, and an intimate relationship with, God, Jesus Christ and the community of faith that people are transformed and empowered by the Spirit for religious-ethical life.” (Rabens, 2010, p.21)

It is not the relationships themselves which transform, but it is the Father, Jesus, and the community which “give shape to these Spirit created relationships”

Being a Christian is to be brought by the Spirit into a new status and new spheres of relationships. It is the Spirit who transforms the believer as a result of a deeper encounter of God, Christ and fellow believers. This is well captured in 2 Corinthians 3:18

And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.

It is also the Spirit who empowers for spiritual transformation (Rom. 8:12-17).

This deeply relational model is a long way from the assumptions we started with  that tend to see ‘me’, ‘my knowledge’ and good teaching as the keys to spiritual transformation and which, to be blunt, marginalises the Spirit and the Christian life.

It also is true to who we are as people, created in the image of God and made for relationship with him and with each other.

None of this negates the importance of good doctrine or teaching. But it does put relationships at the heart of all spiritual transformation rather than ‘detached objective knowledge’. Relationship with the triune God; relationships with brothers and sisters in community.

A closing question: think of an experience that has been deeply transformative in your life … what happened? How did it work?

Comments, as ever, welcome.